Celebrating Zen on the beach


The dense, coastal summertime fog that often blankets Green Gulch Zen Center and organic farm are conducive for growing lettuce and other cool-weather crops. Each planting is handled with mindful care, and restaurants and hungry farmer’s market-goers alike seek out the produce. The neat rows of the farm’s fields stretch in a line from the meditation hall down towards the shore south of Muir Beach.

Chard and other greens thrive here, and the ends of the rows are marked by the trimmed stalks of the harvested bushels of vivid lavender, red, orange and gold—striking hues against the dark soil.

This Saturday, the center’s residents will host a special farm-to-table benefit in honor of Green Gulch’s 40th anniversary. The event is called Feasting in the Fields, and will be an outdoor luncheon featuring a bounty of the vegetables grown at Green Gulch, showcased in a menu designed by Greens Restaurant executive chef Annie Somerville. Organic juice and citrus-based beverages, specially crafted by wine expert Mark Ellenbogen, will also be served. The event will feature farm tours, music, a raffle, and a special program for children aged 5 to 12.

Founded in 1972 at a time when many “intentional communities,” as they were often called, were springing up in the Bay Area, Green Gulch is one of the very few that still remain. Zentatsu Richard Baker, an American-born roshi who became abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center after the death of Japanese Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, was asked by his predecessor to establish a farm near the city. He wanted to create a place where a lay community of practitioners could live among one another, and where entire families could come to live and practice Zen Buddhism together.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi arrived in San Francisco in 1959. A Buddhist priest described as a thin man with a ready laugh, he began sharing his teachings of “just sitting” and “beginner’s mind,” which aims to look at life freshly and see it as being full of potential. He founded the San Francisco Zen Center three years later, in 1962, beginning in a small temple in Japantown. The Zen Center now operates out of a historic 1922 brick building in Hayes Valley, and has played a key role in spreading the teachings of Buddhism in America.

While some members of the San Francisco center were hesitant to commit themselves to the ambitious project of creating Green Gulch, the farm was purchased from Polaroid co-founder George Wheelwright and work was begun. Mr. Wheelwright asked that the Zen Center commit to always being open to the public and engage in agricultural awareness.

Community members held fundraisers to raise capital, and converted a hay barn into the zendo, a traditional zen meditation hall featuring rows of meditation cushions that face each other, rather than to the front of the hall. Practitioners perform zazen, or sitting meditation, kinhin, or walking meditation, and take part in practices like chanting and a ceremonial meal called oryoki. Zen, a form of Mahayana Buddhism, originated in China during the 6th century and later spread to Vietnam, Korea and Japan.

On a recent Tuesday the center and farm were calm, as one might expect. Some residents were doing yoga stretches on an outdoor wooden deck. Inside the darkened hall, where black zafu cushions awaited the evening zazen, one black-clad practitioner was already sitting in silence.

Mr. Baker received Dharma transmission from Suzuki Roshi in 1970, and was installed as abbot in San Francisco in 1971. He also penned the introduction to Suzuki Roshi’s famous book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, published a year before the Zen master’s death.  

Mr. Baker quickly succeeded in broadening the scope of the San Francisco program, and in 15 years the annual budget went from $6,000 to $4 million. The Zen center is made up of the city facility, Green Gulch and Tassajara, a retreat center located at a hot springs in Carmel Valley.

The center acquired property worth around $20 million, and built up a business network staffed by Zen students, including a vegetarian restaurant, a bakery and a grocery store. But Mr. Baker resigned as abbott in 1984, after admitting to a romantic attachment with a married sangha, or community, member. The current abbotts are Myogen Steve Stücky and Paul Haller.

According to staff, Green Gulch remains particularly concerned with the effects that human beings have on nature — believing that the latter requires protection from the former, rather than the other way around.  These beliefs are based in Buddhist religious texts, they say, and impacts to the land are carefully considered. Inverness architect Sim Van der Ryn created his first composting toilet for Green Gulch Farm in 1974. The compost toilets saved 10,000 to 15,000 gallons of water each year.

In addition to growing vegetables to sell at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmer’s market and to stores and local restaurants, Green Gulch also hosts a fruit, herb and flower garden. Designed in the formal English gardening style, those gardens are arranged in a series of “rooms.” Roses, shrubs and perennials are enclosed within a yew hedge. There are large sweet peas climbing a fence, bright blue cornflowers, and fragrant bushes of lavender. The garden is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (although groups larger than six are asked to call ahead).

In keeping with its original commitment to remain accessible to the public, Green Gulch’s temple is open to the public each Sunday, beginning with zazen at 8:15 a.m. followed by a lecture at 10:15 a.m. There is a tea at 11:15 a.m., and lunch at 12:45 p.m. Donations are suggested.

The center offers programs for veterans, the homeless, the incarcerated, the drug-addicted, and the sick and dying. Together with the city center, it operates vacation retreats and classes on topics as diverse as Zen cooking, LGBT identity and the dharma, and “young urban Zen.”

Throughout the year, free classes are offered on gardening, pruning, flower arrangement and herb culture. There is also a summertime organic farming apprenticeship, which incorporates principles of nonviolence and mindfulness. For example, farm workers are encouraged to be careful when digging in the soil not to expose the worms or cut them with shovels. And instead of trying to kill the bugs that come to feed on the growing produce, farmers plant flowers along the rows that are more attractive to the bugs than the vegetables are, or which attract other, beneficial insects that keep the pests away.

Green Gulch is also home to one of the country’s few traditional and authentically built Japanese tea houses and gardens, and classes are hosted by the resident tea teacher for up to 14 people.

Johan, a young Zen priest in training, said that he came to the center to study organic farming in 2006, but stayed to undergo ordination training.

“I realized that living a life that was connected like that was nourishing in a way that I never expected,” he said. “The aspirations of the center, the ritual of every day expressing together our intentions to help all beings, and of sharing those intentions — the way we farm, greet our guests, share the teachings — we try to bring that intention to all aspects of life.”